When Stressed Teens Put the Pressure On Themselves
By Dr. Deborah Gilboa
“But I have so much to do!”
Deadlines, assignments, chores, commitments, family obligations—teens can end up on a merry-go-round of stress that spins out of control. Often, it’s parents that put the stress on kids. But sometimes, kids put the stress on themselves.
So how do you convince stressed teens who want to do well that maybe they should learn to relax a little?
Take, for instance, an 11-year-old who comes to me, a family doctor, with complaints of a stomach ache, insomnia, and irritability. Usually, I wonder, “What have your parents done to you?” In this case, however, the child is the source of his own stress. Driven to get all A’s; committed to showing up early for play practice, with all his lines memorized; focused on reaching Regionals for the Science Fair; determined to complete assignments the minute they’re assigned. He created all these pressures.
How do I know? I’m the parent. If anything, we pressure this particular kiddo to do less.
We’ve always been surprised by my son’s internal motivation. To be honest, a middle school boy who doesn’t need a single reminder to do his homework is a huge relief. Our line about grades is: “If your teacher says you’re trying, we’re not looking at the grade. You’re only in trouble if the comments note your lack of effort or learning. Better a C that you work for than an A that you don’t.”
But we’ve watched him raise his own standards higher each year. This trend didn’t make much of an impression on me until Parent-Teacher Conferences this past fall.
“To be honest,” his social studies teacher said, “If he didn’t like school so much, I’d be really worried about the pressure he puts on himself.”
The pressure. The insomnia, irritability, and self-directed frustration. That’s just as potentially damaging as any lackadaisical attitude and poor work habits might be.
So how to address this? The first thing I’ve learned working with families is this: Never tell anyone how to feel. First of all, it’s useless (“Don’t worry Mom!”). Secondly, it’s disrespectful. Telling someone that their feelings are ridiculous—no matter how you say it—never starts a productive conversation.
5 Tips for Helping Stressed Teens to Relax
My son and I want the same thing: We both want him to achieve what he desires while feeling good about himself and the process. So our conversations focus around those goals. Here are some principles we’ve found useful for our stressed teen.
1. Saying yes to something means saying no to something else. Agreeing to be in the school play, help with the afterschool chess club, and be on the soccer team means saying no to many opportunities, like playing Legos with your brothers, catching a movie with mom, or lunch with Grandpa. If you’ve over-committed, speak up. And understand that since you’re only 11, we may say no to something for you.
2. Downtime matters. Leaving time to play, laugh, relax, and exercise makes you better at everything you do. Like sleep, these activities will make you sharper for tests, keep you more connected on your team, and help you memorize your lines. Self-care is a lifelong skill, and we’re going to insist you learn it.
3. Sleep helps. Want to bring your A game? Doesn’t matter what you’re going to do—sleep helps. So nine hours of rack time are the rule, and you need special dispensation (rarely given) to decrease that number.
4. Communication moves deadlines. Most teachers (and coaches and bosses) will be flexible when you’re respectful and transparent about what you have done, can do, and will do. Ask!
5. It’s OK to disappoint others at times. You will have a few teachers that do not care what is going on in your middle-school-life. Their homework is sacrosanct. To them. It doesn’t always have to be so for you.
I work with college students all over the country. I have to tell you, these are life truths that many of them have never considered when they land in the pressure-cooker of higher education. So if you, like me, have a stressed teens who are creating the pressure-cooker, seize the moment. Get your teen practicing the skills to keep things in perspective and find joy in life.
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, parenting contributor for “The Today Show,” is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior You Want …Without Being the Parent You Hate. For more advice from Dr. G or to ask a specific question, visit her website at askdoctorg.com or tweet @AskDocG.